Sunday, 7 May 2017

Returning with a spring in my step

I have really missed writing this blog, but there are times in all of our lives when other priorities need to take precedence over our own pleasures – if we care about other people then we cannot put ourselves first. Since I last touched a keyboard my family has suffered death, illness and deep disappointment and my job has been the most demanding I can remember in what is a long career. 

I write this because I enjoy doing so; it is very satisfying finding out relevant information and verifying my facts. However, it is a personal indulgence and not a necessity. I have missed putting words on a page, and now that things feel a little calmer, I’m back.

Louis Warner Sculpture - Returning
It feels appropriate to base this piece on communication (as, to me, that is what a blog is all about – even if I am only talking to myself). 

Photograph by Saratola Ban
Today is International Dawn Chorus Day – a chance to listen and recognise one of Nature’s daily wonders. I am fortunate in that when I am in Somerset, with my mother and sister, I listen to the Dawn Chorus most days – the power and quantity of birdsong is much greater than you will hear during most of the rest of the day. (Today the Chorus in London was quite restrained, but there was excellent BBC coverage, with live coverage from India to Ireland, from midnight until nearly 6.00am earlier today.) 

wren singing on hawthorn
There are many theories as to why birds sing first thing in the morning – some say that it is due to “temperature inversion” – when a layer of cold air is trapped close to the ground by a warmer layer above.  The boundary between these layers acts like an acoustic mirror reflecting the sound, so that it travels further. In addition, dawn is a good time to communicate (as the light is less good for foraging, and a bird might as well do something useful once it is awake), perhaps most importantly, singing at daybreak enables a bird to signify to rivals and prospective mates that it has survived the night, is in robust health and able to put on a good show. More promiscuous birds, such as blue tits and reedbuntings, may opt for a bit on the side courtesy of a Dawn Chorus introduction (so the Chorus is an avian aural form of Tinder), while others, who are fiercely territorial (such as blackbirds and robins), use it as an opportunity to intimidate their adversaries. I suspect the message for many of us from the Dawn Chorus is the importance to take best advantage of the opportunities available and select times to communicate that will ensure maximum impact and optimum outcomes.

I have just finished reading The Sellout by Paul Beatty – my CEO gave it to me as gift, as it had made him laugh. It is an excellent read – a witty, no-holds-barred, satirical take on attitudes towards racism and society in the USA. There is one statement, made by the main character near the end of the book that has stuck with me:

“I think about my own silence. Silence can be either protest or consent, but most times it’s fear. I guess that’s why I’m so quiet and such a good whisperer, nigger and otherwise. It’s because I’m always afraid. Afraid of what I might say. What promises and threats I might make and have to keep.”

Given the prevalence of elections (France is voting for its new president today – either Macron or Le Pen will be a clear break with tradition, my guess is that Macron will win; the UK has an election in early June; and Germany goes to the polls in September), we should all be mindful of the promises politicians make and the likelihood of their being able to honour what they say. Similarly, we, the people, need to make our thoughts and hopes known. We must appreciate that the inclination towards remaining silent and not making a stand for what is important can have severe repercussions. Not turning out to vote is as damaging as voting for something because you don't believe that what you are voting for will actually happen, just to "make a statement". We need integrity and determination to see us through the challenging times ahead.

Earlier this year there was an atrocious terror attack on members of the public and a policeman on Westminster Bridge near the UK Houses of Parliament on 22nd March. I am a governor of Guy’s and St. Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust and we discussed the medical response to the attack at our recent Board and Governors’ meetings. Everyone was immensely proud of the way in which medical and other staff of the Trust responded - rushing to provide support (St. Thomas’ Hospital is located at the opposite end of the bridge to where the attack occurred). However, we were bemused by the decision to take casualties to various hospitals a significant distance from the disaster site when St Thomas’ was so near and had appropriate facilities – the decision as to where casualties should be taken was part of the wider London terrorist attack plans that had not previously been communicated to the Trust.  These plans, that ensure that there is a pre-determined response in the event of a terror attack or other incident, were devised by the Department of Health and NHS England – I appreciate the need for secrecy and tight security measures, but perhaps further consideration regarding the proximity of leading hospitals and medical facilities and the sharing plans with relevant parties would make things easier if there is ever such an awful event in the future.

Duke of Cambridge visiting St Thomas' Hospital in London
to thank staff who helped during the terror attack
Press Association photo
After the horrors of the terror attack in March, London felt different. On the 23rd I went in to work as usual but the tube was surprisingly quiet at rush hour – many people chose to travel by bus, rather than using the tube, or stayed at home, perhaps after seeing the numbers of police guarding the entrances to Underground stations. The blog London Wakes, written in response to the occurrence by my friend David D’Souza, resonated with me. In this post he urges people to “build a bridge”. He is right, like Beatty’s comment in The Sellout, silence is often the product of fear and if we want a safer environment we need to speak, discuss and understand. Elaine Dang was a victim of the terrorist attack in Nairobi in 2013 when al-Shabaab opened fire in a shopping mall killing 67 people. After the event she remained traumatised long after her physical wounds had healed. She came to appreciate that the only way to dispel her fears was by enhancing her knowledge and awareness, in her case of Muslims and Islam. Since 2013 she has gone out of her way to learn and make connections and now she appreciates that the heinous actions of a few do not justify labelling a whole group as dangerous and she is no longer afraid; we all need to engage and gain understanding, especially with and from groups and people we don’t know well, if we are going to make the world a better, safer place. Hiding from the unknown, sharing in “group-think” (by only communicating with like-minded people who support our own world-view) exacerbates distrust and misunderstanding.

Photograph by Daisuke Takakura
In a much smaller way, after the Westminster terrorism event, I made this discovery for myself. That week I was trapped working late on the Friday and only escaped the office after most people had been out for hours, celebrating the end of a traumatic week. There was a very noisy crowd at the tube station when I got there – of particular note were a group of men, who had clearly been having a good time and were raucous. I kept my head down and tried to avoid catching their eyes (how very British of me). However, they got into the same tube compartment as I did and their loud banter continued. One of them deliberately sat down beside me and became insistent on starting a conversation. Not wishing to seem rude or wanting to attract further attention from the wider group, I responded, cautiously at first. It transpired that they worked for a subsidiary of a large German bank and that they had indeed been socialising for hours. A senior colleague was over from the States. He had been very kind, when one of them had been working in America, and they wished to return the hospitality. He had taken their colleague to a Blues bar so, having shown him a traditional British pub, they were heading off to see The Stranglers in concert at The Academy in Brixton.

Stranglers playing at Brixton Academy March 2017
I asked what the man I was talking to usually did in his spare time and he told me he wrote. It transpired that he used to work night shifts, which impacted on his ability to spend time with his daughter. He used to read her a story before he left for work but after a while she said she wanted him to tell her something different. He asked her what she wanted to hear about and she gave him some ideas and named some familiar objects – this was the start of his making up stories for her. Each night he would tell her the tale he had crafted during the previous night’s security shift, before being given the subject matters for the story for the following day. He has five year’s worth of tales crafted with love and his story made me see him as a sensitive and caring man, rather than the intimidating person he had seemed to me when he got on the train and forced me to speak. I walked home with a grin and a spring in my step. The world is a surprisingly good place – and made even better when we communicate.

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